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Kinship and Capitalism: Marriage, Family, and Business in the English-Speaking World, 1580-1740

Author(s):Grassby, Richard
Reviewer(s):Caunce, Stephen
, Stephen

Published by EH.NET (June 2002)

Richard Grassby, Kinship and Capitalism: Marriage, Family, and Business in

the English-Speaking World, 1580-1740. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge

University Press, 2001. xix + 505 pp. $65 (hardback), ISBN: 0-521-78203-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Stephen Caunce, Department of Historical and Critical

Studies, University of Central Lancashire.

Historians often compare their research to bringing together the scattered

pieces of an incomplete jigsaw puzzle. This metaphor seems particularly suited

to this self-avowedly ‘uncompromisingly empirical study,’ which centers around

a large relational database which is intended to elucidate the family patterns

that existed among the early-modern business community of London above the

level of artisans and tradesmen, a divide defined by what are admitted to be

somewhat arbitrary standards (p. 273). However, the results show the weakness

of the metaphor, for the book is simply an assemblage of facts, and whereas a

jigsaw’s image is self-evident once the pieces are brought together, the

patterns latent in this sort of historical evidence emerge for most readers

only if historians point them out. The author’s industry can only be admired,

but the end result is bewildering since such guidance is mostly lacking here.

Even its scope is vague, for while the database rests mostly on the records of

London-based institutions like guilds, companies and corporations, within and

around it extends an anecdotal penumbra that shades through diaries, letters

and memoirs to all manner of secondary works dealing with the middling sort.

Thus, the bibliography is located in the middle of the database source list,

preceded and followed by lists of primary sources, and is confined to those

works that have provided data. The end-product includes immigrant groups like

the Huguenots as well as English-speaking merchants resident in the middle and

far east, and this has either justified or forced the claim, made in the title,

of coverage not of London alone, but of an English-speaking world that

stretched from the western edge of the American settlements to commercial

outposts in India. While London’s pivotal and commercially unifying role in

this ‘world’ is obvious, it seems very dangerous to assume that there was but

one culture across the whole of it. Apart from anything else, the city’s

extraordinary growth and development, together with the lack of any rival or

equivalent, made it a unique social space. Certainly, cultural gaps that

contemporaries readily perceived, such as that between the metropolis and the

nearby manufacturing areas in the north of England, are never acknowledged.

Ostensibly, the book deals first with family structures, and then their impact

on firms and business methods, but the sections really cover much the same

ground. The latter rarely rises above such well-proven matters as the use of

family members as overseas representatives due to their identification with the

interest of the firm (p. 293), or the fact that ‘capital was essential to

businessmen’ (p. 282), observations mostly derived from secondary literature

rather than the data. Statements that ‘the citizens of Shrewsbury displayed no

awareness of lineage’ (p. 382-83), or that ‘in Hull the partnership developed

into an extra-familial organization’ (p. 269), and others of the same sort, are

thrown in and simply left for us to make what we will of them. The real focus

is therefore on families, but there has to be grave disquiet about the approach

here as well. The introduction states bluntly that almost all existing work

embodies theoretical perspectives from Marxism to extreme feminism that all

lead their proponents into opposition both to evidence and common sense. This

simply ignores the empiricism inextricably associated with the whole family

reconstitution methodology, or the mass of mainstream analysis that is

available as an alternative to the theoreticians’ work. Moreover, despite

claims of iconoclasm, nothing here would startle someone who has read an

established textbook like Wrightson’s English Society, 1580-1680.

Each chapter starts with an introductory survey, usually less than two pages in

length and sometimes only a short paragraph, and terminates with a summary of

about a page. In between is a mass of evidence, with a typical page

incorporating ten or more snippets from different individuals’ experiences,

simply laid before the reader in short, staccato sentences, while a

correspondingly daunting set of footnotes often fills a quarter of the page and

sometimes more. The author’s assiduous reading certainly results in a very wide

range of historians, especially American ones, getting recognition, often via a

single footnote, but when such important figures as Earle, Laslett, Wrigley and

Schofield get only a little more (English Population History from Family

Reconstitution, 1580-1837 seems to appear first on page 162 in the middle

of a footnote, cited simply as the source of two generalized statistics on

childhood mortality levels), the balance must be wrong. I did not come across

some essential authors at all, like Smail and, most notably, Hudson, and any

acknowledgement of the existence of the Cambridge Group for Population Studies

as an entity also passed me by.

While the text is heavily sectioned by theme, the approach neither promotes a

flow within the chapters, nor a conviction that the evidence really does prove

what is claimed. Important themes such as apprenticeship, service and

inheritance patterns crop up repeatedly and never cohere. Doubt must also exist

about the analytical strength of textual fragments of twenty words or so, often

with no date, no place, and no social context. That ‘John Whitson may not have

been the only husband who suspected that his wife had married him for his

money’ is unarguable, but also unhelpful (p. 48). Some families, like the

Huguenot Papillons, recur, apparently because their plentiful records met the

author’s needs. Others flash up once, never to be seen again. Most such

snapshots are inevitably open to many interpretations and it is fair to assume

that many would be revealed as multi-layered moments in a long and complex

chain of events if they were not separated out like this. Indeed, the one

occasion on which real detail is given, via a series of quotations on a

Papillon pursuit of a good marriage, stands out precisely because its three

pages allow us to derive so much more (p. 370-74).

The database ought to unify and organize the material, but, as with many such

enterprises, the end results seem to have proven curiously difficult to use in

a meaningful analytical way. Several tables seem to pass completely unnoticed

in the text, such as Table 9.1, while those statistically-based conclusions

that do appear are overwhelmed by the anecdotal fragments, as on page 202.

Statements, such as this on the parental occupations of London apprentices,

where ‘sons of husbandmen and yeomen rose from 2 percent in period I to 6

percent in period II, with a concentration in [financial] brackets I and III

and cohort II’, are delphically difficult to follow (p. 273). To understand

them requires a search of the appendices, where at the end of appendix B (and

of the book) comes the necessary decoding of the two periods, four brackets,

and four cohorts around which everything is organized. All too often the

precision claimed for this approach seems lacking in practice.

Moreover, though presented as statistics, the vast majority of the data is of

course not originally numerical, and much depends upon authorial judgments.

Many kin linkages rest simply on identity of surname, for instance, inevitably

missing many close relationships through female connections, and possibly

presuming false links. The Smiths, as the author says, pose obvious problems,

but many localities also had dominant groups of less well-known names that

easily mislead. That which is undoubtedly statistical can still hardly be

treated as reliable in a modern sense, being derived from notoriously difficult

sources like probate inventories. The analytical subgroups are also sometimes

too small to inspire confidence (p. 51) and the construction of the database

categories gives further cause for concern since one that unites men worth ?501

with those worth ?5000, while putting those worth ?5001 in with those worth

?50,000, can only produce meaningful insights into differences in behavior and

attitudes if the sample is adequate across the whole range, and if the division

reflects a natural break. This appears to rest simply on convenience, and I saw

no way of knowing where the center of gravity of any bracket lies, or how it

changes between periods and cohorts. Inclusion in a financial bracket stems

from estimated net worth at death, moreover, when elderly businessmen might

well have terminated many of their business-related activities. Values are

adjusted to 1660 prices via the Phelps-Brown and Hopkins index, a measure used

for a multitude of purposes, like this, which the authors would surely have

felt went beyond its true strengths.

Grassby (a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey)

does from time to time identify unifying forces, but in very idiosyncratic

ways. Many are contradicted a few sentences later, and possibly then overturned

again, as when we are told that the nuclear family explains nothing, followed

shortly by learning that it is the key to most things (p. 394). Some are very

strange, such as the statement that this was a society increasingly dominated

by a bureaucracy, and that this rested upon ‘an impersonal, universal

meritocracy homogenized by a common education’ (p. 262), with Durkheim cited as

the source of this insight. A statement like ‘nothing empowers like cold, hard

cash’ (p. 394) lays him open to many lines of attack when we are dealing with

an early-modern society where status was deeply engrained (as he has earlier

noted) and where much of business was done on credit (as, again, he has pointed

out). When it is used, as here, to argue that women and other groups could not

have been discriminated against in a market-based economy, it beggars belief

(p. 340). On the other hand, his general preference is for denying the

existence of patterns, even down to stating that ‘in general … there was no

fundamental difference’ (p. 366) between businessmen and non-businessmen, and

that ‘families … were chaotic and infinitely diverse aggregates of

individuals in motion’ (p. 389). ‘When it is possible to spend a lifetime with

another person without ever really understanding him or her, how can historians

blithely assume that they can read the minds and make judgements about millions

of strangers in a different culture’ (p. 27) seems to reflect better his

fundamental attitudes, and we are also told that ‘the human sciences … have

to contend with the infinite variability of human nature. The structure of

society is not manifested in a unified or coherent manner and cannot be

adequately captured even by complex models’ (p. 388-89)

This makes it hard to understand why history is worth publishing at all, and

vitiates any academic claims to have some deeper purpose than chronicling the

past. Presumably, Grassby chiefly hopes to prove that everyone else has been

deluding themselves, and despite his rejection of modern theorizing, he does

accuse most historians of writing fiction (p. 393). The book is dedicated ‘to

all vulgar empiricists,’ and there may be a group who will read this book with

delight. Having spent much of my own career operating on the interface between

academic and antiquarian approaches to history, I have enormous respect for the

contribution made by the latter, but to profess to see no distinction between

the two is very worrying (p. 422, note 5). Because the human past is a vast and

intensely complex affair, the same facts can support many, but not infinitely

many, convincing and instructive pictures. There is an old cautionary joke in

the north of England (and probably most other parts of the English-speaking

world) concerning two old friends. One turns to the other and says, ‘You know,

Joe, they’re all daft bar thee and me — and I’ve noticed thou’s been acting a

bit queer lately.’ Being the only one in step is difficult to justify, and by

definition cuts you off. My own feeling was ultimately disappointment that so

much research should be laid out in such a way that so little can be gained

from it by the rest of us.

After a career that began in museums, Dr. Stephen Caunce is now a senior

lecturer in history at the University of Central Lancashire, Preston, UK. Among

other research interests is a long-running project on a typical woollen

manufacturing and mercantile family from West Yorkshire, the Taylors of

Gomersal, from c. 1550-1900, and the business culture of which they were a

part. He is the author of “Not Sprung from Princes: The Nature of Middling

Society in Eighteenth-century West Yorkshire,” in D. Nicholls, editor, The

Making of the British Middle Class? Studies in Regional and Cultural History

since 1750 (Stroud, 1998).

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):18th Century